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Look What You Made Taylor Do: Copyright Law Explains Why Taylor Swift Is Re-Recording Her Music

Posted on Nov 18, 2021 in Articles

In a move as legally ingenious as it is sentimental, musical artist Taylor Swift has decided that she would like to own her music.

While it may seem obvious to the general public that the writer, composer, and performer of a song would then own that song, the music industry functions on a different set of rules formed by contracts and copyrights.

First, a little background on Copyright Law.

Copyright law is the bedrock of the music industry. Although a copyright is formed as soon as a work has been captured in some sort of tangible form (e.g. pen to paper, sheet music, a recording), the work then must be registered at the Copyright Office to be enforceable against infringers. While the duration of a copyright has changed many times through the decades, copyright protection generally lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years for works created after January 1, 1978.

An owner of a copyright has the right to do the following:

  1. Reproduce the work
  2. Distribute copies of the work
  3. Perform the work publicly
  4. Make derivative work
  5. Perform copyrighted sound recordings by means of a digital audio transmission
  6. Display the work

Typically, there are multiple layers of copyright in a single musical work.

Music copyrights are usually divided into two sets of rights:

  1. Musical Composition
  2. Master (or Sound Recording)

Musical Compositions are either the music or the lyrics to a song, or both. A Sound Recording, or a Master, is the recorded performance of a song. For example, a songwriter who composes the music and writes the lyrics to a song would own the Musical Composition copyright; while an artist (or, more likely than not, their record label) who records that song would own the Master of the performance.

There are other rights that fall under the umbrella of each.

How does this apply to Taylor Swift?

In Swift’s case, she owned the Musical Composition of her songs as the lyricist and songwriter. Her record label, however, owned the Masters of all the music on her albums released before her 2019 album, Lover – even though she was also the performer of her music.

This is a far bigger legal implication than one would think: it means that Swift legally was not the owner of the original audio recordings from which all the other copies were made. The record label’s ownership of this copyright granted the label free reign on Swift’s Masters, videos, and album art. It left Swift with no control over when and to whom these rights could be sold.

This became a public issue in the face of Swift’s claims that her old record label was holding her Masters ransom in exchange for her signing another contract with them.

Luckily for Swift, her original contract’s restriction on re-recording expired in November 2020. Further, because Swift has written every single song released in her six albums and therefore owns the Musical Composition copyright, she retains the “sync rights” of her music. This is important: it means that she holds the right to determine whether her songs can be used in projects which require a synchronization license (such as in advertisements, movies, and games). She thus has a way of neatly barring anyone else from profiting off her original Masters in that way.

In 2018, Swift also signed a deal with Universal Music Group which ensured that she would own all her Masters in any albums released since.

Since the expiration of her re-recording restriction, Swift has (pardon the pun) swiftly begun re-recording her music, releasing updated versions of her older albums starting with Fearless (Taylor’s Version) in March 2021. She has most recently re-released her fourth studio album, Red.

Swift is on course to release “Taylor’s Versions” of her first six studio albums, re-gaining ownership of her music – and providing artists and lawyers a master class in contract and copyright law while she’s at it.

By Saval Desai


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